NR: Finding The Magic In The Kingdom

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Screenrant recently posted a piece on ‘Iron Man’ director Jon Favreau and his work on Disney’s new ‘Magic Kingdom’ project.  The article is definitely worth a read, so head on over to Screenrant and give it your attention.  Then come back, for I have a few words to add.

Director Jon Favreau

Magic Kingdom's Centerpiece

There are rough waters ahead for Mr. Favreau. ‘Magic Kingdom’, a film based on a theme park, could all too easily be a shallow spectacle, a comedy misfire, a self-indulgent debacle or worse. But it’s clear Favreau believes that there’s potential for a rich, exciting narrative. I quote Mr. Favreau via Screenrant (emphasis mine):

“When Walt first set out to do it there was something very nostalgic and forward looking at the same time about Disneyland. When you went down Main Street it was the turn of the century, it was days gone by and Tomorrowland was the future. There is such a weird shared experience that any of us who’s ever gone to Disneyland feels that I don’t think has really been mined yet. It’s this collective subconscious that we have and there are these archetypes that are so strong that there’s a fun way to present something that is family entertainment but still will take you through the experience that you had [growing up].”

Favreau wants to mine nostalgia, which when properly harnessed is a powerful cinematic force.  Many of the great films of the late 20th century run on nostalgia fuel.  ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Dark City’ — all mined from the cinematic and cultural heritage of their creators.  All of them present worlds that fuse the auteur’s nostalgia with their unique vision.  Favreau’s opportunity is to reinterpret Disney’s legacy in his own image, which, if it works, could deeply influence its future.  ‘Magic Kingdom’ is not just another theme park ride adaptation ala ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.  It’s the whole park, and therefore symbolic of Disney’s heart and soul.  The tactile juxtaposition of the mystical past and the incredible future, with today’s family caught in the middle, has delighted and inspired millions.  There’s obviously a great story there.  How does a filmmaker turn this into an emotional arc complete with action and suspense without succumbing to cliché?  It’s a daunting, though tempting challenge.

I believe Favreau is up to it.  He has the arms and the oars for this whitewater ride.  His ‘Iron Man 2’ could serve as the proof.  Not for the film’s main story, which suffers from Marvel’s insistence on setting up ‘The Avengers’, but for the Stark Expo that anchors it.  With music and production design deliberately reminiscent of the World’s Fair and the Magic Kingdom’s own Tomorrowland, there is exactly that same nostalgia-future collision that so attracts Favreau to this new project.  He can now fully explore this concept and hopefully conjure up the cinematic magic necessary to save Disney’s kingdom from ending up on the rocks.  I wish Favreau, his team, and Disney the very best of luck.

 

NR: Snyder’s Superman

James here.

This is the first article in a new series, News Reflections, here on The Silver Mirror.  When we see something intriguing coming down the wire, we give some commentary, weigh pros and cons, wag a prophetic finger if necessary.  Expect updates bi-weekly, Wednesday and Friday.

First up, thanks to Collider, we have the news that executive producer Christopher Nolan is stepping away from active involvement in the ‘Superman’ reboot to focus on directing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

This leaves the reboot entirely in Zack Snyder’s hands.  Yes, we knew this would happen eventually.  Somebody has to take the reins.

Superman, as I expressed in my review of the 1978 classic, is heroic idealism anthropomorphized.  He’s the guy who always wins, and he’s such a swell guy, too.  Also in my review, I directly contrasted him with Alan Moore’s cynical, nihilistic ‘Watchmen’ and its film adaptation, directed by Snyder.  I do find it amusing that Snyder, responsible for bringing Superman’s antithesis to the screen, is now interpreting the Big Blue Boy Scout for a new generation.  I don’t want to imply that Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job.  He’s got a brilliant visual sensibility and manages to get believable emotions out of actors working in an effects-heavy environment.  My fear is, because he shows more affection for gritty, postmodern graphic novels than the optimistic pre-Cold War comic books of Superman’s heyday, he may not succeed in communicating the character’s essence.  Not being familiar with the gamut of Superman’s run in print, my main reference points are in film, particularly the superb Max Fleischer cartoons and the Richard Donner classic.  Getting to the point, I must confess my bias is towards the Fleischer cartoons and their pliable, World-of-Tomorrow aesthetic, and I have no wish to see a cynical, brutal re-imagining of the childhood icon.

The World’s Fair-inspired art in the 40’s cartoons has thematic resonance with the character’s soul.  Superman is sometimes aptly named the Man of Tomorrow.  He represents what the artists believe is best in humanity and what will allow us to flourish in an uncertain, often dangerous world defined by technological innovation.  It’s an important symbol, what with humankind evolving into a hybrid race with the digital world, eerily close to the predictions of such novelists as William Gibson.   It makes sense that Lex Luthor, the evil, ambitious businessman, is the most popular villain in Superman’s canon.  He represents innovation, spurred by capitalism, gone amuck.  Lex is the cynic.  Superman is the optimist.

Does Zack Snyder understand Superman?  Can he rightfully interpret the character, as Christopher Nolan promised, in a modern context?  We won’t know until the film plays in 2012.  There’s a lot on Snyder’s shoulders now.  He could either inspire a generation, or drag it further into the muck.  With the future coming faster than ever, we can’t afford the latter.

Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.